Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Science (page 1 of 22)

The science of rest: findings from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, sociology and other fields

Sleep, brain maintenance, and Alzheimer’s disease

More brains!

In Rest, I talk about how sleep turns out to be a form of what I call “active rest:” rest in which the body is actually doing things behind the scenes. One of the most important things it does is fire up glial cells, which you can think of as a kind of scaffolding and support system for the brain, to clear out the various toxins that build up in the brain during its normal activity. (You can think of these proteins as a kind of waste, just like the rest of the waste your body produces.)

A few years ago, neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard observed this system at work in the brains of mice. Now, writing in Science News, Laura Bell reports on new research on human subjects indicating that “The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep.” (Also, Bell’s article is a terrific overview of the history of this research, and its major lines of investigation.)

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin has been working on the “Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up” in 2001. So by now the Registry has 17 years of data, gathered from surveys, doctor’s exams, cognitive tests, even cerebral spinal fluid taps. (I love longitudinal studies like these: they reveal things that no other kind of research can.)

What Bedlin is finding is more evidence of a connection between sleep deprivation and the buildup of amyloid-beta protein fragments, which have been theorized to be one mechanism behind Alzheimer’s:

Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging….

In a different subgroup of 101 people willing to have a spinal tap, poor sleep was associated with biological markers of Alzheimer’s in the spinal fluid…. The markers included some related to A-beta plaques, as well as inflammation and the protein tau, which appears in higher levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Now, it’s important to note that the casual arrow between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s isn’t yet clear: scientists aren’t yet willing to say with certainty whether bad sleep increases your odds of developing the disease, or whether the mechanisms that are responsible for Alzheimer’s also disrupt your sleep. As Bell puts it, Bell notes that

most studies have a chicken-and-egg problem. Alzheimer’s is known to cause difficulty sleeping. If Alzheimer’s both affects sleep and is affected by it, which comes first?

But even though “the direction and the strength of the cause-and-effect arrow remain unclear,” she continues,

approximately one-third of U.S. adults are considered sleep deprived (getting less than seven hours of sleep a night) and Alzheimer’s is expected to strike almost 14 million U.S. adults by 2050 (5.7 million have the disease today).

Either way, it’s yet another argument for taking sleep seriously, and getting enough of it.

New things on vacations

I’ve been thinking a bit about vacations, partly because I’m off to England tomorrow for some research, some interviews, and a little time off with my wife.

Big Ben and Parliament

My latest piece on Thrive Global is an argument for ignoring your children while on vacation:

Since my kids were old enough to pack their own suitcases, I’ve had one ironclad rule for family vacations: “I’m not responsible for your feeling entertained.”

What this means is, you’re old enough to be bored if you want, or not bored. You can choose to engage, or not. You’re in charge of your feelings.

I also talk about the science of vacations with University of Groningen postdoctoral fellow Jessica de Bloom on my podcast. De Bloom is a psychologist who’s looked at a number of important issues– when our happiness peaks on vacation, how long the benefits of vacations last, and what factors go into making our time on vacation seem good or bad.

Kauai

I think her work is very interesting, partly because some of her findings are kind of counterintuitive, but it’s also worth using it (and all scientific research on human subjects) with a grain of salt. For example, when you measure the amount of happiness that being on vacation generates and how long those benefits last, her work indicates that shorter, more frequent vacations are better for us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on long trips: for example, you can get immersed in a culture, or forge deep friendships, or have other experiences that more than make up for the extra weeks.

My new Red Oxx bag

Travel and vacations can be complicated things, and  rewarding for all kinds of reasons; and I think what’s good about this work is how it helps us think more clearly about how we balance different demands and possibilities. The science doesn’t provide fixed recommendations; it clarifies options.

Anyway, I’m off to England shortly, to put some of those ideas into practice….

Using science in history: the case of spontaneous thinking

Within the discipline of history, the effort to use theories from the human and natural sciences– e.g., psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and other fields– to explain historical change is one that’s yielded, at best, mixed results. “Psychohistory” has come and gone; ecological history has fared somewhat better; and efforts to find a biological explanations for the Salem witch trials or other examples of mass hysteria have been met with pretty healthy skepticism.

At the same time, I think it’s worth thinking through how we can at least use insights from other disciplines, perhaps not as overarching theories for explaining how history moves forward, but more like probes or sensors that help us be more attentive to phenomena that we might otherwise overlook. Of course, Rest is one long argument for paying attention to something we usually ignore in explaining why some people are more creative than others. I have an article in the Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Daydreaming on “Spontaneous Thinking in Creative Lives: Building Connections Between Science and History” that explores how else we could use the neuroscience of mind-wandering and creativity to deepen the history of ideas and science.

Here’s the abstract:

Scientists have only recently begun to explore spontaneous thinking. It might appear that as elusive a phenomenon as it is in the laboratory, it would be impossible to detect in the historical record. This essay argues that it is possible to make space for accounts of spontaneous thinking in historical accounts of creativity and discovery. It argues that historians can use scientific work on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and other forms of spontaneous thought to illuminate the history of ideas. It explains how historical research informed by science could generate new insights in the history of writing and thinking, the history of attitudes towards reason and inspiration, the daily practices of creative thinkers, and even elusive phenomena like sensory perception and sleep. With diligence and imagination, it will be possible to reconstruct the place of spontaneous thinking in the history of ideas.

“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days:” Daniel Pink on time of day and performance

Daniel Pink has an excerpt from his new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, that talks about the rather large effect circadian rhythms have on our daily performance:

Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health. Anesthesia is one example. Researchers at Duke Medical Center reviewed about 90,000 surgeries at the hospital and identified what they called “anesthetic adverse events”— either mistakes anesthesiologists made, harm they caused to patients, or both. Adverse events were significantly “more frequent for cases starting during the 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. hours.” The probability of a problem at 9 a.m. was about 1 percent. At 4 p.m., 4.2 percent. In other words, the chance of something going awry was four times greater during the trough than during the peak.

I think everyone has been in those after-lunch meetings where the room gets heavy, and people struggle to stay alert and pay attention. This is not just a function having had one too many martinis with lunch: it’s a universal thing. Yet the modern workday is organized with the assumption that every hour is identical to every other, and that we operate with the same level of effectiveness on any kind of task whether it’s 9:01 AM or 4:58 PM.

Indeed, in my study of companies that have shortened office hours, one of the consistent things they do is craft the workday to better match people’s daily rhythms: they let people work on their most important tasks when they’re most energetic, and put off less significant things (and many meetings) until later in the day, when you might have less energy and attention– but you might also need to spend less, as well.

Making to-do lists before bed can help you fall asleep (and solve problems)

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest reports on a new study that finds that making lists before bed can “help you fall asleep more quickly.”

Before they tried to sleep, half of the participants spent five minutes “writing about everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days”. The others spent the same time writing about any activities they’d completed that day and over the previous few days.

The key finding is that the participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep more quickly. They took about 15 minutes to fall asleep, on average, compared with 25 minutes for those in the “jobs already done” condition. Moreover, among those in the to-do list group, the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep, which would seem to support a kind of off-loading explanation. Another interpretation is that busier people, who had more to write about, tended to fall asleep more quickly. But this is undermined by the fact that among the jobs-done group, those who wrote in more detail tended to take longer to fall asleep.

I write in REST about the creative benefits of stopping work in mid-sentence. It makes it easier to resume work the next day, and it gives your creative subconscious a chance to work on problems while your conscious self does other things. (John Cleese talks about discovering this when he was first writing comedy; Linus Pauling developed a whole method for solving problems around intentionally thinking about problems before bed.)

And when I’m deep in writing, I will spend a couple minutes before bed making a list of the things to write about the next morning. I’ve never tried to figure out if there’s a correlation between list-making and how well I sleep, but when I’m writing I rarely have trouble falling asleep. So maybe that’s an unintended benefit.

Anyway, while this is an early study, it suggests yet another reason to make brief lists before bed: not only will to help you solve problems faster (and even make progress while you sleep), it’ll help you sleep better.
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Stephon Alexander, physics, jazz, and inspiration

In his recent book The Jazz of Physics, Brown University theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander talks about the connections he sees between playing jazz and doing physics. Of course, there’s a long tradition of physicists being musicians: many are classical musicians, but a fair number play rock, blues or jazz. (There are also noted professional musicians who start out as scientists. Queen guitarist Brian May was an astrophysics Ph.D. at Imperial College in London, while American blues guitarist Elvin Bishop studied physics at the University of Chicago.)

For many, this is an example of deep play, an activity that is a diversion from their work, but also provides some of the same satisfactions as work. (This combination is essential for driven people who are obsessed by their work: it allows them to channel some of that obsession into another activity that gives them a break, and it raises the odds that this diversion will be something that they do regularly, rather than get bored with and give up.) In Alexander’s case, playing also provides a space for coming up with new ideas, as an NPR Code Switch piece relates. While on a postdoc

in Paris, Alexander was stuck on a problem concerning the early universe.

“So I shipped myself to the jazz clubs. You have to create a solo on the spot while conforming to some kind of structure. Well, physics is like that, too,” Alexander says. “In between sets, I would play around with my calculations or just think very freely.”

Sure enough, one night, he watched the audience applauding, which made him think about tiny charged particles slamming into one another – and the solution came to him.

This is a classic Graham Wallas moment, by the way: a bout of hard work that ends by hitting a cognitive wall, setting the problem aside to do something else, giving the subconscious time to let the idea percolate, and finally having a moment of inspiration (and then more months of working out the details).

This excerpt about hanging out with Brian Eno and thinking about vibration in music and physics is also great.

“Children are always busy, even when they don’t look it:” Kids and deliberate rest

The Atlantic has an excerpt from a new book by psychologist Lea Waters, The Strength Switch, talking about the importance of free time and mind-wandering (or “free-form attention,” as she calls it) in childhood development.

free-form attention is what the brain defaults to when it’s off-task, allowed to move in any direction it wants. It happens when the brain is in what scientists call the resting state. In the 1990s, neuropsychologists began to delve into free-form attention and found that it has many benefits, including for children’s learning and their brain development. To shift instantly into free-form attention, all an individual has to do is goof off.

Now just any kind of goofing off won’t do. There’s a constructive form of goofing off that is restorative to the brain and therefore important for strength-based parenting—parenting that focuses on kids’ strengths instead of their weaknesses. Good goofing off is active; the mind is not simply being “fed” stimuli. Rather, the activity engages the mind in a way that simultaneously gives it free rein. Good goofing off happens when the person participating is competent enough at the activity that he or she does not have to focus closely on the process or the techniques. It happens when reading, cooking a familiar recipe, shooting baskets, or simply daydreaming.

Waters calls those periods when you’re not focused on specific tasks “deliberate rest,” which is of course a term I’ve used in my book; we use it in somewhat different ways– I’m talking about a particular set of practices that people discover and can get better at, while she’s talking more about mind-wandering.

Still, we both see focus and deliberate rest (whichever way you define it) as working together:

The ability to toggle between directed attention and free-form attention improves with practice, making the brain most effective. The brain can snap to attention when necessary and then downshift to deliberate rest mode whenever possible in order to maximize mental alertness, process information, and bring forward that knowledge to apply to the next attentive time.

Looks like a book worth checking out.

On rest and value of boredom

Over the weekend I had a short piece in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, which was dedicated to “the benefits of boredom.” My piece explains why “Rest and Boredom Are Scientifically Beneficial for Your Brain:”

We treat boredom as something that we can banish from our lives, like smallpox or polio. But boredom isn’t a disease. We don’t catch it. We cause it ourselves. Boredom is a state of mind, a reaction to the world rather than a reflection of the world. Sure, we can be bored standing in line or waiting around for a delayed plane. But we can also be bored of a once-favorite haunt, or under-stimulated by a too-familiar restaurant. Teenagers are geniuses at weaponizing boredom: kids are brilliant at being stubbornly bored by this dumb thing in this dumb place that their dumb parents have dragged them to.

This suggests that we can modulate even control, our reactions to situations that normally trigger boredom. But why should we? In a world where we can binge-watch television in line at the grocery store, why should we ever let those empty moments stay empty?

The answer is, those moments when we don’t have to focus on anything in particular, and can allow our minds to roam free, are actually quite valuable.

I first realized that boredom was a state of mind that we could control, and that when we’re young we weaponize it, when I was at the British Museum with my kids. We were at the Rosetta Stone, which of course is one of the great jewels in the Museum’s collection, and one of the single most important archaeological artifacts in all of history.

From today's visit to the British Museum

There was another family there, and while the parents were explaining why the Stone was important (and by implication why it was cool that they were there), one of the kids Was. Not. Having. It. He was determined to stay disengaged, no matter what. (It’s not the child in the striped shirt. That’s my son, six years ago!) It struck me just how forcefully the kid seemed to want to be unimpressed, and wanted his parents to know just how stupid the whole thing was. I doubted that he could come right out and say it, but conspicuous boredom made his feelings pretty clear.

Rosetta Stone

This is probably something I did plenty of myself when I was younger. Of course there were times when I legitimately felt like there was nothing for me to do– this was my default state from roughly third grade through high school– but there were probably times when I was bored to make a point. For kids, who don’t have a lot of choice in their lives, the ability to be bored is probably a useful form of rebellion: you can drag me to all these places, but you can’t make me like it, even if it’s something really cool.

But like most of us, as I’ve gotten older and busier, I now have a greater appreciation for the value of those periods when I have nothing I need to focus on; it’s less something to flee from, and a little more a luxury. It can even be good for you.

Sailing, science, and the power of deep play

I seem never to have blogged this, but in the June Penn Gazette I have an article about biophysicist Britton Chance, sailing, and deep play. As I explain in the article, I met Chance when I was a graduate student and writing about a laboratory building that he helped design:

He was in his seventies, but still published dozens of papers a year, advised students, and was able to keep several conversations on completely different topics going at once. And as if that weren’t enough, he was also a world-class sailor who had won a gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

I was impressed and intimidated. I had trouble finishing my weekly reading and doing the laundry, much less excelling in two completely different fields. I didn’t have the nerve to ask how he managed to do so much, or how his lives as a scientist and sailor might have built on each other.

Years later, though, when working on my latest book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, I discovered that Chance’s dual life was far from unique. His life still seems extraordinary, but not quite as mysterious, and it offers some lessons that even a young graduate student could absorb.

Focus, mind-wandering, and the brain

Psychiatrist and Neuro Business Group founder Srini Pillay has a short piece on the Harvard Business Review blog arguing that “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus,” but that allowing your mind to unfocused can be a good thing:

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD [positive constructive daydreaming], 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism [ed: read the piece to see what this means] into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.

This tracks pretty closely with what I write in REST, which is no surprise. I think the big thing I see in the lives of really creative people is that for them, moving between focused and unfocused states has a lot more intentionality or strategy to it.

DSCF0964
Darwin’s Sandwalk

In particular, the habit of doing things that give your mind time to wander soon after a period of focused work is designed to give the subconscious mind a chance to keep working on problems that have occupied, and often eluded, their conscious minds. In particular, Barbara McClintock’s and Charles Darwin’s walks show the hallmarks of being periods meant to exercise the body, clear the mind, but also give the creative time time to pick over problems– and maybe come up with solutions that they couldn’t find through concentrated effort.

Quad
Stanford University, where Barbara McClintock walked while thinking about Neurospora

So while Pillay is quite right, we can get even more out of unfocused periods my adding them at the right times, so as to pass ideas between the focused conscious mind, and the unfocused subconscious.

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